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Opinion Steve Bannon’s first major play is shaping up as a full-blown fiasco

As nationwide protests against President Trump’s immigration mandate rage on, he put chief strategist Stephen Bannon in an unprecedented national security role. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)


Steve Bannon got his Time magazine cover Thursday, and the accompanying piece offers an account of his astonishingly rapid consolidation of power inside the Trump White House. As the article details, Bannon’s fingerprints are all over Trump’s new immigration ban, making this a test case of sorts as to what the disruptions that Bannon and President Trump promised will produce in the real world.

Bannon, Time reports, continues to relish the massive blowback unleashed by Trump’s executive order — which bans refugees and migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries — as proof that he is doing something right. He’s shaking the elites to their core (he didn’t even attend the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner!!!), which, he crows, heralds the birth of a “new political order.” But, for all of Bannon’s bravado, the better interpretation of what’s going on is that Bannon’s first major effort to translate Trumpism into policy reality is a full-blown disaster:

Did you attend a protest? Tell us what you plan to do next.

1) A federal judge in California has just issued a sweeping ruling that puts a stay on key aspects of Trump’s executive order: His ruling holds that the government must now let into the country people with valid visas who are coming from the seven targeted countries and are looking to live here permanently.

2) The underlying legality of the executive order is now in serious doubt. As the judge’s ruling notes, this stay was issued because the underlying legal challenge to it is “likely to succeed on the merits.” Similarly, another federal judge who blocked the removal of detainees at an airport did so out of the belief that those detained and others like them have a “strong likelihood of success” in showing that their constitutional rights had been violated. As one ACLU lawyer put it: “Every court that has ruled on this has seen it as unconstitutional, so that is a strong sign that this is blatantly illegal.”

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3) The executive order’s legal vulnerability, as well as widespread confusion about its legal application, may be traceable directly to the process overseen by Bannon and the White House team. Multiple reports have indicated that the Office of Legal Counsel may not have reviewed the executive order (which Bannon mostly wrote) before its release, leading legal observer Benjamin Wittes to remark that it reads as if “it wasn’t reviewed by competent counsel at all.” Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security initially determined that the order should not legally apply to green-card holders, but was overruled by Bannon — yet the White House subsequently reversed in part on that point.

4) In the face of widespread chaos created by the executive order’s lack of procedural clarity and confused implementation, Bannon has sought to convert the resulting outrage into proof that he is doing something right, reducing it to nothing more than frantic whining by media elites terrified of the rise of Bannon’s “new political order.” In other words, the Bannonite belief in disruption as an end in itself renders impossible any self-scrutiny or acknowledgment of error, in a kind of endless feedback loop (the consequences of which could become much more dire over time). And it is precisely the Bannonite contempt for procedural and institutional knowledge that is partly responsible for creating all of the logistical and legal problems to begin with.

5) The resulting mess and intensified media scrutiny of Bannon’s role has ripped the lid off the teeming, ugly reality of Trumpism. The White House has sought to employ comically contorted euphemisms to mask the reality of this executive order. The nonstop claims that this isn’t a ban meant to target Muslims is belied by the history of this proposal and by Trump’s own words about it, which leave little doubt that its intent is discriminatory. And White House press secretary Sean Spicer has taken to insisting that the order isn’t even a ban at all — arguing instead that it’s solely about improving vetting procedures — even though a ban is exactly what it is, and Trump himself described it in those terms.

Meanwhile, the White House’s efforts to recast this proposal as nondiscriminatory in intent — and only about improving vetting procedures — is undercut by new and intense media scrutiny of Bannon’s worldview. A Post report demonstrates that this worldview is driven primarily by a desire to dramatically restrict legal and illegal immigration and by the belief that the west is embroiled in a global war with “an expansionist Islamic ideology.” This has led Bannon to suggest about refugees: “Why even let ’em in?”

6) Even Republicans are acknowledging — and rejecting — the obvious clash-of-civilizations ideology underlying the executive order. Multiple Republicans have rejected the euphemisms offered by the White House and instead have cast it in exactly the terms that critics have — as something that risks sending a global message that the U.S. is at war with Islam. This suggests that even Republicans know that taking concrete steps to implement this aspect of Trumpism is politically untenable.

7) There are some signs that Trump himself is unhappy with the disruptions that Bannon has wrought. But that brings us to our next item.


* TRUMP IRKED WITH BANNON’S ‘DISRUPTIONS’? In the big Time magazine profile of Bannon, we find this:

Bannon’s prominence in the first 10 days of the Administration — and the scenes of confusion and disorder that are his disruptive hallmark — has rattled the West Wing and perhaps even dismayed the President. According to senior Administration officials, Trump hauled in some half-dozen of his key advisers for a brisk dressing-down. Everything goes through chief of staff Reince Priebus, he directed.

Treat such leaks with caution — they may reflect internal maneuvering — but if this is true, it’s surprising. Aren’t Bannon’s awesome “disruptions” supposed to be confirmation that he’s rattling the old order?

* MILITARY PROBES MORE POSSIBLE DEATHS IN RAID: Reuters reports that U.S. military officials are investigating the possibility that more civilians were killed in a raid in Yemen in which one Navy SEAL died. But note this:

U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations. As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.

The White House responds that the raid was preapproved under Obama. Surely this is the sort of thing that congressional Republicans might want to investigate.

* REPUBLICANS GETTING INCREASINGLY ANTSY OVER REPEAL: CNN reports that more and more Republicans are being open about the possibility that some parts of Obamacare will remain:

GOP Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said … that it is time to do away with the notion that there is a GOP Obamacare “mega-bill” in the works. “There isn’t,” said Walden, whose committee has significant jurisdiction over healthcare. “We’re looking at fixing this mess a brick at a time. Piece by piece. Taking our time to get it right.”

Republicans aren’t allowed to admit that there may be no way to keep the popular stuff in the law while getting rid of the unpopular stuff, since they’ve misled their base about this for years.

* TRUMP’S SECRETARY OF STATE SILENT ABOUT REFUGEE BAN: The Post raises an important point about Trump’s newly confirmed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson:

He has remained publicly silent about Trump’s controversial immigration order, and it’s not clear whether Tillerson was even given a say over its scope or wording. His absence from the rollout of a policy that significantly affects the country’s place in the world has sown doubts about the State Department’s role in shaping White House decisions. … One of Tillerson’s chief outside backers, former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, said … that the immigration order is likely to make his friend’s job harder.

This once again underscores the folly of allowing Bannon so much power in setting this policy.

* STOP REWARDING GOP’S SHREDDING OF NORMS: E.J. Dionne calls for Democrats to mount scorched-earth opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, as retaliation for nonstop GOP procedural obstruction, including the refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing:

Ask yourself how this procedural extremism will be halted if one side is rewarded for violating all the conventions and rules of fair play and the other side just meekly goes along. The Rubicon was crossed with Garland. Conservatives complain about the treatment of Robert Bork when he was nominated to the court in 1987, and they turned the word “Borked” into a battle cry. But Bork got a hearing and a vote on the Senate floor, which he lost. To be “Merricked” is to be denied even a chance to make your case.

Also, to be “Merricked” is to be insulted by the preposterously absurd GOP argument that giving a hearing to someone nominated in the last year of a president’s tenure somehow disrespects the voters.

* TRUMP BADGERS AUSTRALIAN LEADER, OBSESSES OVER CROWDS: The Post reports that Trump angrily lashed out at Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a private call over a dispute about a deal to take in refugees, and adds this detail:

Even in conversations marred by hostile exchanges, Trump manages to work in references to his election accomplishments. U.S. officials said that he used his calls with Turnbull and [Mexican president Enrique] Peña Nieto to mention his election win or the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

It has been nearly two weeks since Trump’s inauguration, yet his apparent frustration over the crowd size still spills over into his discussions with world leaders.

* THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY, REFUGEES-SCHMEFUGEES EDITION: Trump responds to reports about hits call with the Australian prime minister:

It’s telling that Trump describes refugees, which is what the deal in dispute is about, as “illegal immigrants.” Maybe should have “studied the deal” before the call?